How to Run a Race Car on $1.98 a Day
No money? No problem. We’re racing anyway.
Growing up in Southern California with two parents who were school teachers I can recall the exact conversation I had with my father when I told him I wanted to race cars. Dad looked me square in the face and said, “Get a job.” 15 years later I can say I have worked as a professional coach for a major manufacturer, driven with McLaren race engineers and traveled all over the United States on almost nothing. Here’s how I did it.
PRO TIP: Get a job.
Image courtesy of Civicx.com
Buy the Right Car
I started saving every dollar I had from birthdays or Christmas that I got—starting when I was 12—and then worked pretty intense hours during high school to afford a 2002 Mazda Miata Sport Edition when I turned 19. This car became an obsession that I modified for a street tire autocross class that permitted very little modifications. I competed in this car for around 2-3 years before selling it to upgrade to something else. But it gave me a solid foundation to understand rear wheel drive machines. The class only permitted sway bars, brake pads, single adjustable shocks, stock size wheels, and slightly wider tires. You can play around with setup, but you can’t add any turbos or superchargers. This kept costs down and taught me how to drive properly.
PRO TIP: Japanese cars tend to be the most inexpensive things to race. Run in “spec” or “stock” classes that permit very few modifications and you will be on your way to dirt cheap racing.
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Know the Right People
I wanted to go wheel to wheel racing, so when I discovered karting and how cheap it was compared to autocross, I made the switch. Buying a kart was the best decision I’ve ever made in my racing career as it opened the door to become friends with a 9-time national champion who would eventually give me my break in driving for a small team. What I didn’t know at the time was that this “small team” had some legendary drivers on it like Steve Nichols—who worked with Gordon Murray and McLaren Honda F1 team. The team told me if I could buy my own plane ticket ($250) they would provide a hotel, food, race car, and all the necessary crew for a weekend. I ended up setting the fastest time at the event and was asked to drive the car for two seasons afterward. This—combined with driving ability—would later give me the credibility needed to become a pro coach for a big sports car manufacturer.
PRO TIP: You never know who is at the race track, but networking is only good if you have the skills to back it up. Practicing a lot means that when opportunities do come up, you can capitalize on them and potentially get a ride out of it. I’ve been to Laguna Seca, Sonoma, Circuit of the Americas, and a host of other tracks without ever paying a dollar. All I ever had to do was buy the plane ticket.
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I coach many forms of racing at a track in the So-Cal region and can say that the best way to race on the cheap is to invest in yourself. Average drivers tend to spend more money on parts as they need to lean on superior mechanical advantages to stay ahead of the pack. If your car “isn’t as good” you might still be able to find that half second—or more—from a coaching session you took 6 months ago. Lastly, knowledge doesn’t wear out like tires and brake pads do. It transfers into any vehicle you drive and is worth more time than you can possibly imagine. You are worth seconds on the race track, not tenths.
PRO TIP: A good private coach is someone with experience across many cars and disciplines. In the beginning, try to find an autocross event or track day where you can get free coaching, but as you get better it’s important to seek out an expert.
Know What “Delivering” Means
Certain drivers consistently deliver. No exceptions. When you get the opportunity to drive someone else’s car, you have a responsibility to not damage their equipment in any way, shape or form, but that doesn’t mean you drive slow. I’ve heard guys at track days say things like, “If you’re not going wheels off you’re not fast” and other absurd cliche catchphrases that would have you thrown off a race team before your 3rd practice lap. Sliding excessively puts tremendous heat into tires and can ruin an entire race weekend. Don’t be “that guy” who thinks he has to show off to the team and then ends up in the sand trap because he overshot it 5 minutes into a 12-hour competition.
PRO TIP: Control is the name of the game. If you want to race for next to nothing, the best way to do it is to show someone you can give them good results at the track without costing them money.
Put Your Car on a Diet
Lighter cars consume less fuel, burn through fewer brake pads and need less power to generate the same lap time as a heavier car. The more weight you can trim out of your car the less you will spend across the board on almost every component. If you’re a great driver who doesn’t beat the hell out of the car this becomes even truer. It should also be said that starting with something light is going to be easier than trying to pull a bunch of weight out of something heavy. Referring to slide 2 will save you a lot of trouble as you go down the racing road.
PRO TIP: Buying something light that was also mass-produced tends to be the best bet when it comes to building a cheap race car. Many of these types of cars have tons of aftermarket parts that trade hands on the cheap too. By knowing what mods are the most important you can build something fast without spending a lot of money.
Do Everything Yourself
Here’s a myth about racing: you need the latest and greatest laser alignment tool or a new trick brake caliper to be in with any chance. That’s why racing is so much money, right? Absolutely wrong. I hear this so often and it’s like nails on a chalkboard to my brain. Here’s what you need to align a car: a string, some poles (to tie the string to) and a ruler. How much money did we just spend, $10? Friends of mine who are champions in some of the most difficult racing environments on earth still use this to this day to set their cars up. It’s more trusted by some professional teams than laser alignments due to not needing calibration as well. You can find string anywhere on the planet and you can repeat it with amazing accuracy if you know what you’re doing.
PRO TIP: Do things the “old school” way and you will often find your wallet magically getting fatter. By learning the concepts behind how cars work you will feel less intimidated to do things yourself. This can save you tremendous money.
You’re full of it…give me an example.
Fair enough. Let’s take a trip back to 1993. One of my racing mentors named Steve was operating a Formula Atlantic team doing all the work himself: driver, setup, mechanic, race strategist, alignment, transmission builds, etc. He managed to compete against some of the biggest names in the world at the time for a budget of $150,000. Others in the series managed a similar feat, but those at the top were spending upwards of $1,000,000. This gives you an idea—albeit a bit extreme—of how much you can race for if you learn to do as much as possible. Steve estimates the average racer can spend 25% of what the other guys do and still sit on the podium if they are capable of tuning and wrenching on their own car.
PRO TIP: DIY as much as you can on your car and you’ll save boatloads of money. Sometimes this can be the difference between running in a series where you can generate revenue and not being able to afford it. The more you learn, the more you save.
Do it Right the 1st Time
If you’re going to be competing in any form of motor racing or even open track day lapping, the last thing you want to do is buy parts that aren’t proven. I have personally raced for shops that were adamant that their way to tune a car was revolutionary only to find out when we got to the track the car was incapable of clocking mid-pack times. Re-engineering a car costs major dollars and can be the determining factor in a failed campaign. Millions of people race cars, if you learn to pay attention to what the top people are doing, you can get a big leg up on what works and what doesn’t.
PRO TIP: A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Thousands of people are racing the exact same car you drive, maybe even in the same class that you want to run. Message some of the top guys on Facebook and inquire about setup before you build your car and you might find some golden nuggets that save you big bucks.
Run in Chump Car or Lemons
Some of the best racing I have done was in the Chump Car series and it is a lot more difficult to win than you would think. Cars are prepped to all levels, which gives you a real flavor of what big league racing actually feels like. You have everything from people barely scraping by to multi-millionaires who bring their trailers and crew. The difference in Chump Car is that the guy who is barely scraping by can actually win sometimes if his car is reliable. Laughs are plentiful at these events, but don’t for a second think you’re going to show up and just start winning. People who campaign here include national champion touring car drivers, K&N Pro Series West guys, and former F3000 open wheel winners. It’s a brawl to see who gets to the finish, but it can be done on the cheap.
PRO TIP: Find the right series. Certain organizations “get it” and are more in tune with what people want. Chump is one of them with a great atmosphere, world-class race tracks, and fierce competition.
Image courtesy Miataturbo.net
These are my top secrets for racing on the cheap. Everyone’s path in motorsport is different so we are all going to have different stories and advice. One thing we can all do is to start to see the angles we have in the industry and utilize them. Play on your strengths and be aware of your weaknesses so you can work on them to improve. It’s a very difficult sport to do on the cheap, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Who knows, maybe you will get lucky and meet a rich person with nothing to lose who finances your entire career all the way to the pro ranks. Sound too good to be true? It happened to a guy I used to work with. In motor racing, anything is possible.
PRO TIP: Good luck. Have fun!
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